April 10th 2016:
It’s finally happening; I wake up at 5.45AM and quickly get ready; at6.30AM I meet the rest of the class in front of the school entrance; it’s officially time; we’re going to Cuba!!
A couple of flights and hours later we land in Havana with a gorgeous sunset greeting us in the distance.
April 11th 2016:
A few friends and I wake up at 7 and go on a quick run around the hotel as a way to see the city for the first time: the first impressions aren’t much; we’re in the modern area with a few hotels and embassies around and are yet to experience the real town!
Later on, we make our way to the old town for a walking tour. I can honestly say that the Havana old town is as special as I thought it would be; the old gorgeous buildings along with the cars that act as colored accessories & the main squares could easily be the backdrop of any movie. They’re just so pretty.
That afternoon we make our way to an eco farm in the residential part of town; if you’re interested in the subject and ever make it to Havana and have some free time, reach out to the amazing lady who manages this farm and go for a visit. It’s fascinating how much they’re able to do with little resources and how everything is organic. I can only hope that when the embargo is fully lifted, they have all the supplies they need to continue doing what they do so well.
Later that night we watched the gorgeous sunset by the water and headed into town for dinner and drinks.
My thoughts after our full day in Cuba were all over the place. I fell in love with this city and wished a lot of it would stay the same but yet you could clearly see that a lot is missing: walking by grocery stores you could easily notice how ’empty’ they were compared to what we as foreigners are used to coming from abroad. Another thing that is fascinating involves this country’s currency: Cuba has two currencies which is one of the most confusing and yet interesting things I’ve ever seen during my travels. Cubans use their own currency the Pesos Cubano while foreigners operate with CUCs, the Cuban Convertibles. The CUC is pegged to the American Dollar and every CUC is worth 25 Pesos Cubano. Life in CUCs is almost as expensive as being in the States or in Europe so traveling to Cuba as a tourist is not cheap. Some travelers manage to exchange some CUCs into Pesos Cubanos and use those for transportation (buses etc.) and food carts and that’s when you notice the actual rates that Cubans get to pay, but more on that later.
April 12th 2016:
This ended up being more of a relaxing day; our initial plan got cancelled given that our tourist visa doesn’t allow us to access certain renewables energy sites. Instead, we ended up visiting Las Terrazas, which is pretty cool. There’s even an Eco hotel there which is pretty awesome. They generate their own solar energy which covers the energy demand of the hotel and the place has such a nice feel to it. Afterwards, we headed to the Baños San Juan and spent some time by the river swimming around.
Later, we returned to the hotel, spent some time by the water and then went into town for a couple drinks.
A little more info I learned about Cuba as a socialist country today: education is required up until elementary school: parents can apparently get into trouble if they don’t send their kids to school. Education is also free the entire way up until college; however, once you graduate you’re required to work in a position appointed to you by the government for 2 years if you’re a guy and 3 years if you’re a girl (given that guys have to go through a year of military training before college). This is basically your way to repay the government for your education. If you don’t complete this time in the position assigned to you, your diploma is no longer valid and you won’t be able to find a job. Most jobs pay 15-30 CUCs; higher paying jobs include doctors and teachers and they’re usually paid 30-40 CUCs. Each family also receives a booklet that includes a list of basics: eggs, chicken, fish, rice etc. Everytime the family buys something from the store, it’s noted down in the list since there are specific ratios for every family. Apparently at this point each individual is allowed 5 eggs per month, a number that has fallen from 30 over the years. Based on my understanding, you can buy additional eggs if needed; however you will not be receiving them at the subsidized prices anymore.
Another thing that I’ve learned today is that even though Cubans only have access to 4 national channels on their TV, they’re able to get some of the American shows on a weekly basis; I guess if there’s a will, there’s a way!
April 13th, 2016:
After another quick run and yet another delicious breakfast full of fresh fruits, we make our way to the oldest hotel in town to meet up with a professor in renewables and sustainability and a manager at the Cuban Electricity company for a presentation about the country’s current situation.
The afternoon is free, so most of us spend our time walking around town and taking it all in. No matter how long you end up roaming the same districts, you’re bound to find something new.
April 14th, 2016:
We leave early morning and start the 2+ hours drive to the Western part of the island: the Vinales, which are as gorgeous as I expected them to be.There we meet up with the manager of a small community NGO and he introduces us to some of his small projects in the area. Truly fascinating.
April 15th, 2016:
With our bags packed and on the bus, we make our way to a residential district of Havana where the same NGO manager introduces us to the rest of his projects. Later on, we head to a church where some of the autistic children and other community members he works with have put a show for us. It’s truly fascinating and humbling how people with so little are able to enjoy life so much and manage to put smiles on others’ faces. Even without speaking Spanish, most of us were still dancing along to with other community members and for a while it felt like we all belonged to one place.
After lunch, we slowly made our way to another church where we were introduced to yet another project of the NGO. The organization works with women who had or have breast cancer and uses art in whatever form to help them with their sickness.
Afterwards, we head to Varadero (the beachy area of Cuba, where most tourists usually end up going) for the final two days together as a class. We were greeted by crazy rain and a storm on our way to the hotel, but good news is that our initial hotel was overbooked so the agency was able to upgrade us to a 5 stars hotel at the last minute. I guess when in Cuba…
April 16th, 2016:
Our last full day in Varadero included a quick trip to an ecological reserve followed by a relaxing afternoon under the burning sun at the beach, and a class meeting to reflect on the trip.
My favorite part of this day was the moment where we all decided to take a picture in the infinity pool right around sunset. Some of us had already showered and put clothes on, but that didn’t stop most of us to jump into the pool (some even with clothes on). The process was so funny and loud that most of the other hotel guests around were watching us as if we were providing some kind of show.
April 17th, 2016:
Today, marked the last day of the planned program; 10 of us were making our way home, while the majority of us split in smaller groups and got to spend a few extra days on the island.
I ended up traveling with 7 friends and we split across two cars. The plan was to drive across the island and end up on the Eastern side in Santiago; no one except us thought our plan was realistic, but we still booked the two cars and got our casas booked.
The original plan was to leave on Sunday morning, but like anything else in Cuba things with the car reservations didn’t go according to plan so it took us a few hours to figure it all out and slowly make our way to Cienfuegos for the evening but more on that the next time.
To read the post about my second week in Cuba, click here.